Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Israeli forces kill three in gun battle

WHAT ROADMAP?The continuing violence shows that American-led peace efforts have made little impact on the daily routine of conflict and death in Gaza and the West Bank


Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip killed three Palestinian security men in a gun battle and wounded at least 20 people in a separate raid on a refugee camp yesterday, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.

The bloodshed, which followed a mortar bomb attack that wounded 10 Israeli soldiers, showed that renewed US-led peace efforts after the Iraq war have made little impact on the daily violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian officials said Israeli undercover soldiers who drove up to a Palestinian guard post in a civilian car shot dead three security men and wounded two others in an exchange of fire near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the Israeli operation as "murder in cold blood" and accused Israel of trying to sabotage a US-backed peace "road map" aimed at ending 31 months of violence.

An Israeli military source said troops had fired on armed men moving under cover of darkness toward the settlement, a frequent target of militant attacks.

Earlier, an Israeli armored force backed by helicopter gunships raided the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, adjacent to the army base hit by the mortar bombs.

Hospital officials said some 20 Palestinians were wounded by a missile fired by an Apache helicopter. Witnesses said Israeli bulldozers destroyed four houses before the force withdrew.

An Israeli military source said the operation was aimed at curtailing mortar attacks on army positions and settlements in the area.

The violence erupted ahead of US-arranged talks which Palestinian officials said were planned for Saturday between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas on the peace road map.

The militant Islamic group Hamas, spearheading a Palestinian uprising for statehood and fiercely opposed to the road map, said it fired the mortar bombs into the base, located in the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekelim.

In another attack, three Israelis were slightly hurt when a home-made Qassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip slammed into a factory warehouse in Sderot, a southern Israeli town near Sharon's ranch, security officials said.

In a newspaper interview published on Tuesday, Sharon rejected any talk of dismantling Jewish settlements in the foreseeable future despite US calls for conciliatory gestures to advance the new peace plan backed by Washington.

The Palestinians accept the road map but Israel does not. It outlines reciprocal steps leading to an independent Palestinian state by 2005 in the West Bank and Gaza, lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Sharon will see US President George W. Bush in Washington next week to voice reservations about a plan that Israel says cannot be implemented until Abbas carries out a mandated crackdown on militants.

Palestinians say Abbas must be able to show his people a political dividend, such as an easing of Israel's military grip in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, before he can rein in gunmen.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell asked both sides during a visit last weekend to begin putting the road map into motion. But each demanded the other move first on the security front.

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